By Daniel Gómez*
A few months ago, a publicity advertisement that promoted a new type of car sparked an interesting controversy in Argentina. The commercial was called “Imagine living in a Meritocracy” and invited readers to dream of “a world where each person has what they deserve […] where the one who arrived, arrived on their own, without anyone giving anything to them.” As soon as it spread among the public, several internet users made strong criticisms, through blog entries, memes and even a counter spot, as it was an ode to individualism and neo-liberal values.
After reading several of the comments and responses to the video, I think that what disturbed many of the viewers was the idea of meritocracy incorporated into the ad, one that does not consider how factors such as class, gender, or race affect the achievements and life trajectories of people. More broadly, it was a critique of how merit is valued in societies like Latin America.
The idea that a person’s merit can be measured only from individual outcomes in employment and education seems to be based on a questionable premise in national contexts with high levels of inequality, since it ignores that there are segments of the population that have unfair disadvantages to achieve certain goals, and that in some cases, however hard they try, they cannot achieve them. For example, the scarcity of economic resources may be a factor in unequal societies that makes it difficult for a person to learn a second language, to gain access to quality higher education and, eventually, to access a well-paid job. This understanding of merit fails to assess the impact of discrimination against women, racial minorities and persons with disabilities or LGBTQ on their performance in educational and labor spaces: how inequality, prejudice and stereotypes impose labor and academic burdens that are both disproportionate and invisible.
On the other hand, it should also be considered how, on the contrary, there are people who enjoy social advantages that facilitate their achievements. In the same way that almost uncontrollable factors such as social class can represent for some people excessive burdens when, for example, learning a second language or studying in a university with high social recognition, or others, these same aspects can mean advantages to materialize those purposes: through access to bilingual primary and secondary education or the possibility of having individual teachers to supplement the education received during the regular academic day.
A fair evaluation of merit should consider both the effect of women’s burden of care (which is a second working day for many working women after their paid work), as well as the benefits that are derived from being exempt of this burden (which many of us enjoy). We should consider how negative stereotyping and segregation limit the possibilities of formal employability for many black people and transgender people, and how referrals, family calls to friends with power, and the personal connections that certain upper-class white people make in private schools facilitate their access to positions in both the government and the private sector. In conclusion, it should serve both ends of the balance, because if you do not pay attention, you run the risk of equating discrimination with demerit and privilege with virtue.
Let us suppose for a moment that a university located in a Latin American country is in the process of admitting a new cohort of students to undergraduate programs. Two candidates are competing for the last available seat. The first is an 18-year-old, upper middle class, white man who was educated in a private school of excellent quality and had access to private tutors and educational exchanges abroad. The other is a 24-year-old, peasant woman of scarce resources, head of the family, who finished her studies in the night shift of a public school located in a rural area. Both meet the requirements for entry. However, the former scored higher on the standardized tests that the university uses as a criterion for admission. Which of the two should be awarded the spot?
A traditional merit evaluation, which only serves purely objective criteria, would probably be inclined to grant admission to the first applicant because he obtained better results in the tests, without considering the privileges and disadvantages that mediated the primary and secondary education of both candidates. However, a different approach might be to include in the assessment additional aspects that have had a significant impact on their previous education. For example, some universities in certain countries have chosen to accept holistic admission models which, when evaluating applicants, consider not only objective factors, such as grades or standardized test results, but also other criteria, such as their life experiences or ability to overcome educational obstacles. It may be that the use of broader criteria leads to the conclusion that it is the second candidate who should take the available spot.
While alternatives such as holistic admission programs are far from a perfect answer to the question of how to value personal merit fairly, they are steps in the right direction to include factors such as inequality, discrimination, and privileges in this assessment. Contrary to what intuition could dictate, the trick to get a fairer estimate of merit may not be to close your eyes and give a symmetrical treatment to all people, but to take into account their life experiences and have a more complete vision of how their circumstances have shaped their educational and professional outcomes. All this, while taking an active stance to contribute to the construction of a more egalitarian society.
There are many other important discussions related to merit, inequality and human rights, who decides and how the “degree of merit”, how this value should be reconciled with nonconventional or majority life projects, or if instruments traditionally accepted to evaluate merit, such as standardized tests or academic qualifications, should also be revised. However, what does seem to me to be clear is that promoting the debate about a fair evaluation of merit should be an important task for the human rights movement since several demands from minority and historically excluded groups, such as access to higher education or affirmative action policies in employment, find opposition in nominally meritocratic arguments.
Thus, it may be convenient, as the Argentine commercial invited, to try to imagine what it would be like to live in a meritocracy and assume the task of finding ways of reading merit through a more egalitarian approach.
* Daniel Gómez is researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).
Photo credit: blogcram